Q: What to do when you have arrived early for your meeting and have some forty minutes to spare?
A: Find the nearest antiquarian bookshop and browse.
Unfortunately I had already bypassed Henry Bohn’s, who I knew would be most likely to have a copy of John Clare’s poems, and I thought of retracing my steps which would take me further away from my rendezvous. Kernaghan’s books in the courtyard of the Bluecoat gallery was nearest to where I was and to where I was going, and as I hadn’t visited for a while I thought I’d spend a pleasant while browsing and chatting.
I had barely been there five minutes when they announced they were closing in five minutes. Nothing focusses the mind like the pressure of an imminent deadline. I picked up the book I had recently replaced on the shelf and knew I had a decision to make. I replaced the book, paused and picked it up again. I opened it at random this time and read the first paragraph.
Monday the 16th of January seemed to be the turn of the year. Looking from my window that morning I saw at the edge of the lawn three small white flecks, the first snowdrops; and then looking upward I saw, in the elms, rooks bowing to each other beside their past season’s nests. When just then the postman brought me a letter from a lady of seventy-six asking if I would take her to a dance, I felt that spring had indeed arrived.
It was that final sentence that tipped the balance, that and this slim hardback book would easily fit into my pocket. I took it to the counter, spent ten further minutes chatting with the proprietor about books read and unread, a signed photograph of Ella Fitzgerald he had recently sold and I read out the clinching sentence from the book. And it was time to leave.
The book is “Till I End My Song” by Robert Gibbings
The photo of the snowdrops is mine, taken on Mothering Sunday in March 2013 by the river Cocker.
The engraving is by Robert Gibbings.
Robert Gibbings (1889 – 1958) was an Irish artist and author who was most noted for his work as a wood engraver and sculptor, and for his books on travel and natural history. Along with Noel Rooke he was one of the founder members of the Society of Wood Engravers in 1920, and was a major influence in the revival of wood engraving in the twentieth century.
“Till I End My Song” is his last book. He lived and died his last few years in Long Wittenham, a village in Oxfordshire. This is an account of his life there, of people and of nature, supported by many of his engravings. It was published in 1957. My copy was published by the Readers Union in 1958.